The existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously said ‘Hell is other people’. The quote originated in his play No Exit with the scenario of hell being trapped for eternity in a room with two other people.
This quote came up in a recent Zoom conversation I had with an old friend. He immediately responded with the opposing claim that ‘Heaven is other people”. My friend is an urbanite who lives in a fashionable part of a big city and spends his days in restaurants, theatres and galleries. Although I used to enjoy that kind of lifestyle years ago I’ve since voted with my feet and moved to a village in a remote part of the UK. Here I prefer the company of wild birds and animals to people and I limit my social interactions to mostly online. I have turned into a recluse for sure!
So I kept thinking about why some of us seem to need people more than others. Which category do you fall into? Are other people hell or heaven to you or a bit of both? Is it simply a matter of introversion or extroversion or the conditions of our early childhood?
I was an only child and spent time in an isolation hospital at the age of three. So being alone feels safe to me. My happiest memories revolve around nature and my wonderful animals. Not people. My parents were unhappy dysfunctional people and I have survived two marriages to men who turned out to be abusers. This is a common experience. We often talk of humans being a social animal but just look at how many notable people became happy recluses in the later part of their lives:-
Brigitte Bardot, Carl Jung, Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Michael Jackson, Caryll Churchill, Paul Cezanne, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Scargill, Brian Wilson, Marcel Proust, Yves Saint Laurent, Harper Lee, Michelangelo, Stanley Kubrick…
So who are you? Do you prefer a mad social whirl or talking to trees? ARE OTHER PEOPLE HEAVEN OR HELL?
The cries of curlews hang silver in the morning light my heart glides
Each year we have curlews nesting on the ground in the back field where cattle graze. Each year chicks are lost to predators including cats, buzzards, foxes and owls. One year the farmer ploughed up the field nest and chicks and all. The parent birds work so hard to protect their offspring. Night and day they circle around emitting a raucous warning cry. Sometimes they dive bomb me in the garden but I don’t mind although those long sharp beaks look a little scary! I worry about those chicks. But some must survive and in the spring when I first hear the beautiful curlew call I am filled with joy.
She longs for the refuge of dark interiors. The Tiffany lamps and plush burgundy of city bars, torn between Aqua Velva and a Dirty Martini. In the gloom, eyes gleam and lies bloom unseen on dry lips. Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.
She dreams of peering through the gap in the chintz curtains as his family coils, roils in the blue flicker of a widescreen. He sips tea from a cracked mug, The Best Dad in the World embossed in faded gold. Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.
She imagines the marine glow of their bed -room, matching furniture and fluffy robes. The green drapes smother the rumble of traffic on Harbour Road. Newborn light pales his face when he smiles. Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.
She craves the murk of musty hotel rooms. A silk scarf cast over a single lamp, sheets and limbs tangled, the acrid taste of him on her lips. His sleeping foot dangles, sock still on and she sees a hole in the sole. Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.
She recalls the tobacco heat of his BMW, leather beneath her thighs. The dashboard flickers like broken glass. Fireflies swirl in the beam of headlights. Morse code. His face turns away when he speaks. Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.
She longs for dark interiors, not this naked white room. Fluorescent light beats down and she shrivels under their weight like a moth who finally made it to the moon. She’s waiting. She’s been here so long, she forgets why. Brightly lit, someone will become no one.
This weekend I discovered the most marvellous novel that I’d never heard of before. Its called The Wall by the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, first published in 1968. Although classified as science fiction and ecofeminist it is really a profound philosophical meditation on solitude and the relationship between humans and the natural world. It contains beautifully intense descriptions of the close bonds that we can form with animals without being sentimental. The story is set in the Alps and recounts in diary format one woman’s struggle to survive in total isolation. The mysterious transparent wall that appears over night is a metaphor for the divisions between us all in a time when we interact with screens more than other living beings. The book was ahead of its time in anticipating many social and environmental issues we struggle with today. The Wall is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read and I would absolutely recommend it particularly if you are a person with a love for animals and nature.